There has been violence in my life.
Whilst there have been moments of violence of which I am undoubtedly ashamed, there have been a few moments of violence of which I am most certainly proud. The pride that I feel when recalling these moments, or when relating them to others, hinges on the fact that these moments of violence mirrored the social narrative of masculine violence imposed upon all men from birth: the narrative where the bad guy loses and the good guy wins.
However, the moment of violence which I think about every single day, is the moment of violence where there was no violence.
When she was three months old, I took my daughter for a walk. Holding her in my arms (‘real men’ eschew slings) I was caught off guard when I turned a corner and saw two men, in their early twenties, threatening an old man who had accidentally bumped into them as he posted a letter. Naturally, I intervened and told the blokes to leave the man alone. What I hadn’t counted on, was that the baby held in my arms, rendered any advantage I had over the blokes-in terms of sizeand general scariness- null and void.
“Whatcha gonna do about it big ears?”
Turns out, I was going to do absolutely nothing about it. The feeling that stands out most vividly in the memory of the event is a prickliness. Literally, I felt my skin prickle. I went very warm, and then my armpits started to sweat. And I felt scared. Absolutely terrified. So, holding my baby in my arms, I turned, and walked away. Granted, I checked (when I was some distance away) to see if they’d left the man alone (and they had), but the simple fact was this: I walked away. I’d seen two twats threaten an old man and I just let it happen. I walked away.
This knowledge- the knowledge that I walked away- plagues me every day with a feeling of shame that hasn’t relented, despite the 9 months that have passed since the occurrence of the event. Because, despite my conscious attempts to repeatedly challenge and question outdated stereotypes of masculinity, the whole alpha male thing is a big part of who I am. And yet now, when I’m in the pub, or at the football, or talking with the lads, there’s always a part of my mind saying, “This ain’t you. You ain’t real. You walked away.”
However, though I think about this day, every day, there’s a reason the shame doesn’t eat me up and that is, I can rationalise it. The whole thing. Because, I am aware of the biological and social conditions imposed upon me from birth that lead me to feel this shame.
Because of this knowledge, I know, deep down, that walking away, although it may make me feel ashamed, is not a shameful act.
Last year, in Britain, 76% of violent crimes were committed by men. In schools, boys are three times more likely than girls to receive permanent exclusions and 19% of these exclusions are down to violent behaviour’s. In special schools that number is closer to 50%.
Violence is a largely male issue.
Society primes men for battle: whether it be the toy soldiers or the camouflage duvet sets or the gangster rap or the metaphors employed by the back pages of the newspapers, society primes men to be violent.
Earlier on, I admitted to feeling pride in some of the violence which I mentioned had occurred in my life. Some of you may have been repulsed by this revelation-or, let’s be blunt- this bragging. But the fact is, I was showing off, and I am proud of these moments of violence because, in some of the circles in which I associate, stories of violence are impressions. For some of the people I know, stories of kebab shop fights and schoolyard scuffles reek of honour and power and loyalty in much the same way as Homer’s Iliad does for the generations who have studied it.
I understand the reasons I walked away: preservation. Preservation of the one person I love more than anything- my baby daughter. I realise my shame may seem immature to you, but still, there is not a hope in hell that I could ever let the boys down the pub know about the time I walked away.
It strikes me that in most schools, violence is dealt with reactively. That is, violence occurs and then it is sanctioned. There may be a reintegration meeting, or a ‘restorative conversation’, but even then, the focus is on feelings and emotions prior to-and after- the violence, rather than the difficult topic of the violence itself: “So Sam, didn’t it feel great to actually just smack someone who bullies you?” Never going to happen.
I believe that schools need to start taking a proactive response to male violence. I believe that a systematic programme of study, designed, facilitated and led from a pastoral position of responsibility, that aims to make boys aware of the biological (not so much) and social (bloody loads) conditions that prime them for violence may go some way to giving our boys the strength and power it takes to protect themselves not just from the force of the fist, but from the sucker-punch of society.
I recently spoke on the phone to someone from Great Men, a charity that recently featured in The Times newspaper under the headline, ‘Can you teach teenage boys to be decent young men?’ The charity goes into schools and speaks to boys about violence, sex, and that other topic people are so reluctant to talk to boys about: emotions. To me, this sounds great. Unfortunately, what with the project being in its early stages, reliable data on the effectiveness of the intervention is as of yet unavailable.
It should work though, right? If I know how an engine works, I am more able to adjust and repair a faulty one. If I know how I work- as a male- if I know how biology and society seems determined for me to work, I am more able to adjust myself to avoid my own faults, one of which seems to be (76% remember) a predisposition towards violence.
I envisage a pastorally directed system of Explanation, Reflection, and Expression (ERE): boys have an important part of their masculinity explained to them (testosterone myth; social selection theory; gender socialisation theory). Then, during reflection time, questions are asked that encourage boys to reflect on this topic: What do you think about the belief that there’s a hormone in you that makes you more likely to be violent than girls? Are you stronger than your hormones? What do you think about the fact that teachers at primary school have lower expectations of boys than girls? Finally, during the Expression phase, boys are encouraged to comment on any aspect of the day’s session.
Before I finish, I want to talk about walking away. When a boy walks away from a fight in Schools it’s usually ignored. After all, of some one walks away from a fight there’s been no fight and so teachers don’t hear about it. In the rare instances when teachers do hear about someone having walked away from a fight, we commend the boy for having done so. What I am sure we are absolutely not doing, is preparing those boys who walk away for the feelings of humiliation and shame that may arise out of having done so.
Failure to live up to social expectations of masculinity- this expectation that men should be fighters, fighters who win- is having a devastating impact. 76% of suicides in Europe are committed by men. Because of this, we need to find the boys who walk away and we need to encourage them to talk about the fact that they have done so and we need to be straight with them: walking away won’t always (in my experience, rarely) make you feel like ‘the better man.’ A concentrated pastoral effort needs to go into encouraging boys to confront these feelings and deal with them.
The shame and anger that I feel, as a result of walking away from those two guys attacking the old man, are wounds. They are wounds that bleed and the blood from these wounds covers a little part of my day, every day.
But this is not my fault, this shame. It is the fault of outdated social expectations. And, because of this, I walk on.
Bloody, but unbowed.